King County must stop the brain drain

How many of you who manage a business, corporation, non-profit entity or public institution could do so successfully if your organization’s image hampered your ability to attract and retain the best and most qualified employees?

My guess is not very many. Government is the same. Government can only be as good as the people we elect and appoint.

Some governments, such as state and federal, are so big that managing them is an uphill battle no matter what you do. It can still be done, but it isn’t easy and success is measured in less qualitative terms. The party in power has a much different view of success on an issue than the party that wants to be in power, so you have two conflicting viewpoints on everything. That, in turn, undermines the overall image of government.

Most cities, even larger ones like Bellevue, Federal Way, Kent and Renton, are at very manageable sizes. They retain employment and political cultures based on respectful debate, resolution and ultimately, a measurable solution. Success is visible to the community, and generally, a positive view of city government exists.

Somewhere in the middle of these extremes is King County.

King County is very large, actually bigger than some states, and employs about 12,000 people. It is also partisan.

When Dean Logan left as Elections Director, he stated that he felt the atmosphere in King County was so poisonous that it made managing a county department next to impossible. While this was probably a discouraged and emotional overstatement, the underlying frustration has merit.

While Records, Elections and Licensing Services (REALS) had five directors in seven years, it is unusual in that regard. Many county directors and managers have been in their positions or in their departments for several years. Most like what they do and the people they work with, but each year the frustration with “just trying to do your job” grows.

About 10 years ago, an astute county human resources manager noted that many of the best and brightest King County managers would be eligible to retire with 25 to 30 years of service between 2000 and 2008, and worried about all that knowledge and institutional memory leaving.

Well, he was right. Not along ago, highly respected Intergovernmental Relations Director Chuck Mize retired. He was followed by Assistant Deputy County Executive Mike Wilkins, whose talent is now being utilized by the charter review commission. Brad Duer, longtime budget director, also left.

The brain drain in King County government continues as several other longtime and well respected administrators have left the county over the past several months.

Recently, King County Chief Administrative Officer Paul Tanaka retired after 25 years. Tanaka was credited by many for managing the merger of Metro and King County, and as Deputy County Executive, he steered the county through some turbulent political times over the past decade.

Also, Pam Bissonnette, who headed the county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks since 1996, left in July after a 30-year career in government.

Eric Haldeman, who headed the Emergency Management agency, also left a few months ago for an opportunity in the private sector.

Lastly, Greg Kipp, who previously was the County Planning Director and more recently was tasked with improving the administration of the health department as deputy director, retired a few weeks ago. He will join a local private firm.

Many of these retirements have been expected for quite a while, but losing that amount of talent within a few short years should be

cause for concern. Some left due to frustration; others decided it was just time to do something else.

Working in King County is not easy, even on a good day, but it has become even harder. The regional policy challenges and the always present political hurdles simply wear on good public officials after a while. More importantly, attracting star replacements that might bring fresh ideas and energy is becoming more and more difficult as well.

The political maturations around the elections office, including trying to make the director elected rather than appointed, are seen by candidates for other positions and it makes them hesitant to even apply for other county jobs.

Fortunately, several of these positions will be filled by current county employees who are bright and talented, such as longtime county problem-solver Jim Buck, who replaces Tanaka. But, the brain drain will continue and if county government cannot change its image, attracting outside talent will make the task of governing even harder.

In the long run, King County must change its image. Partisan labels should be deleted from the elected positions, movement to a true regional government from a local service provider should continue, and differences of opinion that are embodied in debate should be exactly that, not opportunities to attack or undermine county managers.

King County’s image didn’t get tarnished overnight, and it won’t improve overnight. In some ways, it was created by people who are no longer there, but it is up to the executive and the council to make image improvement a priority.

The public needs confidence that policy, not politics, guides the decision-making, and that King County is viewed by the best and brightest as a place they want to work — not avoid.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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